Twitter hopes to score big with the NFL

The social network is counting on livestreamed events, including Thursday Night Football, to broaden its appeal.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
4 min read
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It's third and long for Twitter.

Struggling to attract more eyeballs, the social network has placed a big bet on the National Football League and the nation's most popular sport. Its hope: Successful livestreams of NFL matches will keep it in contention with social media heavyweights, like Facebook and Snapchat.

On Thursday, Twitter streams the first of its 10-game package, a tilt between AFC East archrivals the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. The San Francisco company paid a reported $10 million for the deal, beating the likes of Facebook and Yahoo.

Neither team is a football powerhouse but each sports big names. The Jets are led by Pro Bowlers Brandon Marshall and Darrelle Revis, while the Bills have Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor and colorful head coach Rex Ryan, who previously coached the Jets.

Fans seemed appreciative and were impressed with Twitter's stream prior to kickoff:

The game is the first NFL livestream since Yahoo's last year and marks a huge test for Twitter as it tries to broaden its appeal. The company hasn't seen this much hype since co-founder Jack Dorsey returned as CEO nearly a year ago. It wants to capitalize on the popularity of the NFL, which averages more than 60,000 fans per game and could surpass $13 billion in revenue this year. Likewise, pro football consistently ranks as America's most popular sport, with the Super Bowl traditionally one of the most-watched televised events of the year.

"As soon as we announced [the NFL] deal, almost every league in the world contacted us," Dorsey told investors at the time. "They want to provide an even better experience for their fans."

Twitter has since scooped up deals with Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Twitter will also air live National Basketball Association pregame shows as well as broadcast college Pac-12 games. Twitter is now streaming a nightly sports highlights show called The Rally.

But the NFL is the big prize. An estimated 13 million viewers watch Thursday night games on TV. Twitter wants those viewers, as well as some of its own 313 million users, to tweet during the game while watching its stream.

Fans can access Twitter's livestream by going to the Moments tab -- the one with the lightning bolt -- and typing in TNF.twitter.com. Both provide a timeline of game-related tweets. Of course, watching the game on a smartphone, tablet or laptop will be different than on a big-screen TV.

However, some Wall Street analysts believe the livestream is Twitter's two-minute warning. Investors are impatient with its stagnant growth, sliding stock price and inability to woo advertisers, according to Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Youssef Squali.

"This may be management's last opportunity to reignite growth in users, engagement and monetization," he said. If it doesn't work, investors might pressure the pressure the company to sell itself, he said.

Still, the novelty of watching football on Twitter will attract diehard football fans, cord cutters and curious onlookers worldwide, said Jay Baer, a social media marketing strategist.

"It's going to be a seminal moment for Twitter and the NFL as there is a shift from watching TV to livestreaming," said Baer, who has more than 217,000 Twitter followers. "Twitter has to give people something to talk about to remain relevant with the Facebooks, Snapchats and Instagrams of the world."

The audience Twitter will be targeting with ads include fantasy football fans, gamers and college students, said Dan Stratton, a marketing executive with the Affinio social media monitoring group. Affinio said there have been more than 120,000 mentions of Twitter and the NFL on the social network in the past 30 days.

Sponsors of the livestream include Anheuser-Busch, Nestle, Sony Pictures, Ford Motor, Bank of America and Verizon. The latter will also be streaming Thursday's game as part of its own $1 billion deal with the NFL.

Twitter will livestream a CBS telecast of the game. (Editor's note: CBS is CNET's parent company.)

Baer, who called Twitter's livestream a "Hail Mary pass," said most fans will watch on TV but use the social network as a second screen option. He said the livestream underscores how quickly the sports landscape has shifted in just a few years.

Twitter should be given a pass during its first two livestreams, he said, but probably won't get one. He cites the backlash following ESPN's popular Fantasy Football site crashing on Sunday.

"I'm sure it will be a smash right out of the gate, but what about in five weeks?" he said. "That's when the real story will be told, once the novelty wears off."

Update, September 15 6:11 p.m. PT: With comments about Twitter's livestream from users.